Playing small?

Stop acting as if life is a dress rehearsal.” — Wayne Dyer

Semi-retirement inspires some people to do the craziest things. And if we’re lucky, it gives us time to revive old dreams and cross a few items off our bucket lists. In my “Our Town” column on Royal Oak Patch this week I share the fun we’re all having working as Michigan film extras and spotting celebrities in downtown Royal Oak. Click here to read it.

— Photo of Doug and me in extras holding on the set of Detroit 1-8-7 —

Another birthday

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.” — Samuel Ullman

My birthday rolled around again this week. As I do annually during the first week of August, I take stock of everything that’s happened over the past year. I ask myself where I’ve fallen short or succeeded — but mostly consider what I’ve learned along the way.

Smack in the middle of my fifties now, I’ve finally accepted my imperfections and my weird streak. It’s been a struggle, but I’m also at peace with the idea that not everyone on Earth is going to like me or my ideas.  A woman whose political views I admire once pointed out that if everyone adores you, it’s likely that you don’t have a spine — or any opinions worth defending. I’d rather keep my spine and my opinions.

That said, I don’t ever want to stop growing, changing, and attempting to improve. With that in mind, here are a few things I want to keep working on in the coming year….

Curiosity. One of my favorite quotes from Ray Bradbury goes like this: “Life is trying things to see if they work.” Enthusiasm and curiosity demand a lot of energy — but they keep everyone young in spirit. I’m finding that it helps to hang around with creative people who take risks, seize their passions, try new things, and encourage others to do the same.

Patience. Growing up in the age of instant gratification, I have to keep reminding myself that waiting isn’t such a bad thing. Sometimes I need to chill. Anything worth its salt — including well-written articles, durable relationships, and a great marriage — takes a fair amount of time. And patience. The older I get, the more I appreciate the things I’ve earned through sheer perseverance. But I still need to learn to wait patiently for answers, and to keep the lid sealed on the slow cooker.

Being silly. When I’m at my lowest, it’s usually because I’ve started taking myself way too seriously. And I never cared much for humorless people who take themselves too seriously. I was lucky enough to be raised by a boatload of whimsical Scots who believed that acting silly — really silly — keeps you sane when nothing else makes sense. Now that I’m almost grown up, I know they were spot on.

Listening skills. I’m a talker and a teacher by nature. But as I mature, I hope to become a more accomplished listener and thoughtful conversationalist. My biggest pet peeve is other people who deliver self-absorbed monologues in social situations. I wish I had a dollar for every hour I’ve had to spend with tiresome folks who ramble on and on about their their own stuff — and never ask a single question about my stuff. My new rule of conversation: I must never leave a party, family gathering, lunch date, or interview without knowing at least three new things about the people with whom I’ve spent a few hours. No matter how well I think I know them.

Reality checks. One of my favorite scenes in The Wizard of Oz is when Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the goofy old guy pretending to be Oz. I’m grateful for every opportunity that serves to zap false illusions and expose the naked emperor. As I age, I hope to have more of these opportunities. This year, I’ve been booked to work as an extra in several feature films and TV episodes. I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking — and human nature. I’ve learned, for instance, that Hollywood is synonymous with hard work, long hours, and sleep deprivation. I’ve met some of the nicest people behind the scenes, and also discovered that real movie stars aren’t quite as glamorous up close as they appear on film. Of course, I knew that all along, but wanted proof. Movie stars are (mostly) regular folks with a knack for high drama. I prefer to be a regular person without the high drama, and I’m ever so grateful I came to that conclusion in my own backyard.

Authenticity. I believe this is the highest quality anyone can aspire to.  As surely as I continue to seek it out in other people and experiences, I must continue to nurture sincerity in myself, in everything I do.

Reading the fine print. I hope to live a healthy life, well into old age, and to die clutching a book in one hand and a real newspaper in the other. I appreciate the Internet and all its wonders, but there isn’t a blog or site in cyberspace that can top or replace the scent of fresh ink on paper, or the discovery of a wonderful novel at my favorite bookstore. This year I must, and will, continue to support the printed word by purchasing newspapers and books and magazines. The employment of many of my dearest (and most respected) friends depends on the endurance and triumph of the printed word. I believe that civilization itself depends on it too.

Appreciation. This has been a year of loss and worry, laced with many reminders to cherish and appreciate the people I love. My father-in-law died in June, and my mother’s health is in question. Meanwhile, a very dear friend is recovering from cancer surgery. Appreciation is the incomparable thrill I get each time I walk through my side door and am reminded of my day-to-day blessings. It’s the sense of comfort that washes over me when I hear my husband breathing next to me, or my son’s voice on the phone. Or when I flip through my address book and glance at the names of the good people I could easily call on for help any time of the day or night. I appreciate every single day and every friend I’m given, and I need to send a thank-you note to the Universe. I really do. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photo: “Crazy Science” by Doug La Ferle —

Vintage duds

Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  ~Mark Twain

I have a love-hate relationship with fashion — or, should I say, fashion trends? I’m suspicious of magazines that try to dictate what’s in and what’s out. And I resent the fashion editors and “style experts” who make me feel old or uncool or unattractive if I’m not following their advice or wearing what they advertise. (Who the heck are these people, anyway?)

Yet I’ve always adored beautifully crafted and unusual clothes, new and old.

I’m especially intrigued by vintage clothing, and for years I’ve haunted thrift shops in search of one-of-a-kind treasures to mix with my own wardrobe basics. What I enjoy most about vintage pieces is how they make an outfit totally personal — especially when combined with something classic or relatively new.

Among my favorite pieces: A vintage Christian Dior tux jacket; a way-cool military style coat with unusual detailing; and a double-breasted black polyester blazer with big buttons, circa 1975. I also own vintage scarves, belts, and evening bags — always handy for jazzing up an outfit. While some of my evening dresses from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s are collectibles and not entirely suitable for wearing out, I use and enjoy most of my vintage clothing.

Luckily, I have a large attic for storing my finds. And lately, some of the things I’ve collected have come in handy for my part-time work as a background extra in films.  Typically, background actors are given costume guidelines and asked to bring their own clothes to a shoot. The wardrobe department must approve our choices, or provide another option. The more clothing options we have, the more likely we are to make the production people happy — and ultimately snare more bookings. So it helps to keep a variety of clothing at the ready for this type of work.

Earlier this summer, though, Doug and I were cast in a scene calling for western wear, which sent us on a quick search for western-style shirts and cowboy hats. This isn’t the sort of attire we’d typically sport in suburban Detroit unless we were invited to a Halloween party. So thank goodness for the local thrift shops, which happened to have all kinds of affordable options.

A week later, we were booked for two scenes set in 1980s Paris.  As it happens, I own an Ungaro khaki blazer and a cool trench coat (both thrift-shop finds) from the era. I made a quick trip to the Salvation Army thrift store (during their summer sale) and picked up a couple of 1980s dresses for less than four dollars each.  I brought it all to the fitting with my vintage Chanel scarf — and voila! — the wardrobe people were duly impressed.

Whether I’m shopping for a costume or my personal wardrobe, I carefully examine thrift-shop clothing for damage before I make a purchase. I’m not an accomplished seamstress, but I’m handy with minor repairs and stain removal — and always willing to change buttons.

An added bonus: Some of the best thrift shops in my community support local charities, or are run by charitable organizations. It feels good to know that my purchases will benefit others in need. Fashion is fleeting, after all, and I’m glad I don’t have to break the bank for it.  — Cindy La Ferle

If you’re new to “thrifting” or want to learn more about vintage clothing, start with a copy of The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping, by Melody Fortier, which provides a good introduction and is one of the newer books on the topic.

Background!

Movies are like an expensive form of therapy for me.” — Tim Burton

Most people who work in creative fields are jockeying to land a leading role, a front-page story, or first prize in an art competition. Aiming high, we usually compete for the spotlight. We’re all trying to make it in a culture that worships overnight success and holds its collective breath for the latest American Idol winner.

So, who’d want to work long, repetitive hours as a background extra in films? Who’d get a kick out of working for little more than minimum wage and a few fleeting seconds of screen time?

Lots of people. And I’m one of them.

Thanks to Michigan’s new film incentive program, Hollywood has been sending a variety of productions to our state, creating thousands of new jobs for labor, crew, and actors.

My first gig as a background extra in a feature film began on a lark last fall — another item on my bucket list. Along with my husband Doug and several of our neighbors, I was cast in the opening scene of the big-budget Red Dawn remake when our own neighborhood was used as a film set. Humvees and assorted army vehicles rolled down our tree-lined suburban streets while a troop of gun-wielding Communist soldiers took us captive. It was a total blast, literally and figuratively, and some of us were called back to work in additional scenes in Detroit.

Doug and I had so much fun, in fact, that we registered with a couple of casting agencies, and have worked in several more projects. Among our favorites was the soon-to-be-released Lifetime TV movie, Secrets in the Walls, in which we were cast as a doctor and a nurse in a hospital scene. As Doug likes to joke, “Now I can finally tell people, ‘No I am not a real doctor, but I played one on TV.”

Now that we’re listed with casting agencies, the toughest part is learning to deal with the unpredictability. We might get a call or an e-mail inquiring about our availability a week (or a day) before a particular shoot. At that point, we must commit to a time frame — with no immediate guarantee that we’ll be booked for the job. We’re usually left hanging until the casting agents confirm our roles and send additional details. The agents aren’t being coy or cruel — they’re also waiting for a schedule from the production people.

So it can be hard to plan your life around this sort of work. Last-minute bookings  — and production schedule changes — aren’t unusual. Last year, Doug got an emergency call from a casting agent, asking him to pack a sports jacket and drive immediately to Ann Arbor to cover for another extra who couldn’t show up on the set that morning. (He made it in record time.)

Lights, camera …

Pay rates vary, depending on each film’s budget. As a rule, hourly pay is rarely much more than minimum wage, so I wouldn’t advise anyone interested in this work to consider quitting your day job or ditching your best freelance clients. There’s always a chance that your 15 seconds of “face time” will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor, anyway.

But there are untold rewards, especially if you love movies as much as I do. For starters, background extras get a rare look behind the scenes and a chance to learn more about filmmaking. This takes most of the glitter out of the stardust, yet you can’t help but return home with a deeper respect for the hard work and long hours invested in any given film project. You meet some of the nicest people too — everyone from legal administrators to retired engineers and stay-at-home dads will show up for work. And yes, sometimes you do rub elbows with celebrities.

For me, film work provides an interesting contrast to my (real-life) role as a professional writer. Writers are often loners out of necessity — but we enjoy company too. Working in a film, I enjoy the same rush of adrenaline and camaraderie I used to get when I was in theater years ago. I thrived on the nervous hum of activity backstage while the crew geared up and my fellow actors prepped for their scenes.

Last week I worked as a background extra in an HBO television series. I was waiting for my cue from an assistant director half my age when it hit me that this sort of work is both humbling and freeing.

No matter which production I’m working for, I know I’m just a very small part of a much bigger picture. I have no lines to memorize or deliver, and mugging for the camera is strictly prohibited. Unlike writing a story — where I’m in creative control and get my own byline — I’m merely fulfilling someone else’s vision while working as an extra. My role in a film might be as simple as running across the street from an explosion, singing hymns in a church, working at a desk, hanging around the town square, or standing in a corner with a drink in hand.

Years ago, I worked with a director who liked to remind everyone on stage that “there are no small parts, just small actors.” And that’s still terrific advice for every performer.

But hey, I’m not going to get rich or famous working as a background extra. It’s honorable work, and while I’m on set, I take it seriously. I show up on time and follow the instructions I’m given to the letter. Yet I know I won’t be discovered and given a one-way ticket to Hollywood. And I’m really OK with that. This is teamwork. This is what I do for fun. — Cindy La Ferle

Top photo: I’m on the right, hamming it up with Laurie and Bryan Valko, fellow background extras, after getting fitted for a hospital scene in Secrets in the Walls, a Lifetime TV thriller scheduled to air this fall. Middle photo: My husband Doug (left) posting with background extra Vong Lee, the Communist soldier who held us captive on the set of Red Dawn in our Royal Oak neighborhood last year. Bottom Photo: One of several head shots I use for background extra gigs.